Why the U.S. Won't Attack Iran
by Tom Engelhardt
It’s been on the minds of antiwar activists and war critics since 2003. And little wonder. If you don’t remember the pre-invasion of Iraq neocon quip, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran…" — then take notice. Even before American troops entered Iraq, knocking off Iran was already "Regime Change: The Sequel." It was always on the Bush agenda and, for a faction of the administration led by Vice President Cheney, it evidently still is.
Add to that a series of provocative statements by President Bush, the Vice President, and other top U.S. officials and former officials. Take Cheney’s daughter Elizabeth, who recently sent this verbal message to the Iranians: "[D]espite what you may be hearing from Congress, despite what you may be hearing from others in the administration who might be saying force isn’t on the table… we’re serious." Asked about an Israeli strike on Iran, she said: "I certainly don’t think that we should do anything but support them." Similarly, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton suggested that the Bush administration might launch an Iranian air assault in its last, post-election weeks in office.
Consider as well the evident relish with which the President and other top administration officials regularly refuse to take "all options" off that proverbial "table" (at which no one bothers to sit down to talk). Throw into the mix semi-official threats, warnings, and hair-raising leaks from Israeli officials and intelligence types about Iran’s progress in producing a nuclear weapon and what Israel might do about it. Then there were those recent reports on a "major" Israeli "military exercise" in the Mediterranean that seemed to prefigure a future air assault on Iran. ("Several American officials said the Israeli exercise appeared to be an effort to develop the military’s capacity to carry out long-range strikes and to demonstrate the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear program.")
From the other side of the American political aisle comes a language hardly less hair-raising, including Hillary Clinton’s infamous comment about how the U.S. could "totally obliterate" Iran (in response to a hypothetical Iranian nuclear attack on Israel). Congressman Ron Paul recently reported that fellow representatives "have openly voiced support for a pre-emptive nuclear strike" on Iran, while the resolution soon to come before the House (H.J. Res. 362), supported by Democrats as well as Republicans, urges the imposition of the kind of sanctions and a naval blockade on Iran that would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
Stir in a string of new military bases the U.S. has been building within miles of the Iranian border, the repeated crescendos of U.S. military charges about Iranian-supplied weapons killing American soldiers in Iraq, and the revelation by Seymour Hersh, our premier investigative reporter, that, late last year, the Bush administration launched — with the support of the Democratic leadership in Congress — a $400 million covert program "designed to destabilize [Iran’s] religious leadership," including cross-border activities by U.S. Special Operations Forces and a low-level war of terror through surrogates in regions where Baluchi and Ahwazi Arab minorities are strongest. (Precedents for this terror campaign include previous CIA-run campaigns in Afghanistan in the 1980s, using car bombs and even camel bombs against the Russians, and in Iraq in the 1990s, using car bombs and other explosives in an attempt to destabilize Saddam Hussein’s regime.)
Add to this combustible mix the unwillingness of the Iranians to suspend their nuclear enrichment activities, even for a matter of weeks, while negotiating with the Europeans over their nuclear program. Throw in as well various threats from Iranian officials in response to the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities, and any number of other alarums, semi-official predictions ("A senior defense official told ABC News there is an ‘increasing likelihood’ that Israel will carry out such an attack…"), reports, rumors, and warnings — and it’s hardly surprising that the political Internet has been filled with alarming (as well as alarmist) pieces claiming that an assault on Iran may be imminent.
Seymour Hersh, who certainly has his ear to the ground in Washington, has publicly suggested that an Obama victory might be the signal for the Bush administration to launch an air campaign against that country. As Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service has pointed out, there have been a number of "public warnings by U.S. hawks close to Cheney’s office that either the Israelis or the U.S. would attack Iran between the November elections and the inaugural of a new president in January 2009."
Given the Bush administration’s "preventive war" doctrine which has opened the way for the launching of wars without significant notice or obvious provocation, and the penchant of its officials to ignore reality, all of this should frighten anyone. In fact, it’s not only war critics who are increasingly edgy. In recent months, jumpy (and greedy) commodity traders, betting on a future war, have boosted these fears. (Every bit of potential bad news relating to Iran only seems to push the price of a barrel of oil further into the stratosphere.) And mainstream pundits and journalists are increasingly joining them.
No wonder. It’s a remarkably frightening scenario, and, if there’s one lesson this administration has taught us these last years, it’s that nothing’s "off the table," not for officials who, only a few years ago, believed themselves capable of creating their own reality and imposing it on the planet. An "unnamed Administration official" — generally assumed to be Karl Rove — famously put it this way to journalist Ron Suskind back in October 2004:
"[He] said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’"
A Future Global Oil Shock
Nonetheless, sometimes — as in Iraq — reality has a way of biting back, no matter how mad or how powerful the imperial dreamer. So, let’s consider reality for a moment. When it comes to Iran, reality means oil and natural gas. These days, any twitch of trouble, or potential trouble, affecting the petroleum market, no matter how minor — from Mexico to Nigeria — forces the price of oil another bump higher.
Possessing the world’s second largest reserves of oil and natural gas, Iran is no speed bump on the energy map. The National Security Network, a group of national security experts, estimates that the Bush administration’s policy of bluster, threat, and intermittent low-level actions against Iran has already added a premium of $30-$40 to every $140 barrel of oil. Then there was the one-day $11 spike after Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz suggested that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was "unavoidable."
Given that, let’s imagine, for a moment, what almost any version of an air assault — Israeli, American, or a combination of the two — would be likely to do to the price of oil. When asked recently by Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News about the effects of an Israeli attack on Iran, correspondent Richard Engel responded: "I asked an oil analyst that very question. He said, ‘The price of a barrel of oil? Name your price: $300, $400 a barrel.’" Former CIA official Robert Baer suggested in Time Magazine that such an attack would translate into $12 gas at the pump. ("One oil speculator told me that oil would hit $200 a barrel within minutes.")
Those kinds of price leaps could take place in the panic that preceded any Iranian response. But, of course, the Iranians, no matter how badly hit, would be certain to respond — by themselves and through proxies in the region in a myriad of possible ways. Iranian officials have regularly been threatening all sorts of hell should they be attacked, including "blitzkrieg tactics" in the region. Oil Minister Gholam Hossein Nozari typically swore that his country would "react fiercely, and nobody can imagine what would be the reaction of Iran." The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Mohammed Jafari, said: "Iran’s response to any military action will make the invaders regret their decision and action." ("Mr. Jafari had already warned that if attacked, Iran would launch a barrage of missiles at Israel and close the Strait of Hormuz, the outlet for oil tankers leaving the Persian Gulf.") Ali Shirazi, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to the Revolutionary Guards, offered the following: "The first bullet fired by America at Iran will be followed by Iran burning down its vital interests around the globe."
Let’s take a moment to imagine just what some of the responses to any air assault might be. The list of possibilities is nearly endless and many of them would be hard even for the planet’s preeminent military power to prevent. They might include, as a start, the mining of the Strait of Hormuz, through which a significant portion of the world’s oil passes, as well as other disruptions of shipping in the region. (Don’t even think about what would happen to insurance rates for oil tankers!)
In addition, American troops on their mega-bases in Iraq, rather than being a powerful force in any attack — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already cautioned President Bush that Iraqi territory cannot be used to attack Iran — would instantly become so many hostages to Iranian actions, including the possible targeting of those bases by missiles. Similarly, U.S. supply lines for those troops, running from Kuwait past the southern oil port of Basra might well become hostages of a different sort, given the outrage that, in Shiite regions of Iraq, would surely follow an attack. Those lines would assumedly not be impossible to disrupt.
Imagine, as well, what possible disruptions of the modest Iraqi oil supply might mean in the chaos of the moment, with Iranian oil already off the market. Then consider what the targeting of even small numbers of Iranian missiles on the Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields could do to global oil markets. (It might not even matter whether they actually hit anything.) And that, of course, just scratches the surface of the range of retaliatory possibilities available to Iranian leaders.
Looked at another way, Iran is a weak regional power (which hasn’t invaded another country in living memory) that nonetheless retains a remarkable capacity to inflict grievous harm locally, regionally, and globally.
Such a scenario would result in a global oil shock of almost inconceivable proportions. For any American who believes that he or she is experiencing "pain at the pump" right now, just wait until you experience what a true global oil shock would involve.
And that’s without even taking into consideration what spreading chaos in the oil heartlands of the planet might mean, or what might happen if Hezbollah or Hamas took action of any sort against Israel, and Israel responded. Mohamed ElBaradei, the sober-minded head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, considering the situation, said the following: "A military strike, in my opinion, would be worse than anything possible. It would turn the region into a fireball…"
This, then, is the baseline for any discussion of an attack on Iran. This is reality, and it has to be daunting for an administration that already finds itself militarily stretched to the limit, unable even to find the reinforcements it wants to send into Afghanistan.
Can Israel Attack Iran?
Let’s leave to the experts the question of whether Israel could actually launch an effective air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities on its own — about which there are grave doubts. And let’s instead try to imagine what it would mean for Israel to launch such an assault (egged on by the Vice President’s faction in the U.S. government) in the last months, or even weeks, of the second term of an especially lame lame-duck President and an historically unpopular administration.
From Iran’s foreign minister, we already know that the Iranians would treat an Israeli attack as if it were an American one, whether or not American planes were involved — and little wonder. For one thing, Israeli planes heading for Iran would undoubtedly have to cross Iraqi air space, at present controlled by the United States, not the nearly air-force-less Maliki government. (In fact, in Status of Forces Agreement negotiations with the Iraqis, the Bush administration has demanded that the U.S. retain control of that air space, up to 29,000 feet, after December 31, 2008, when the U.N. mandate runs out.)
In other words, on the eve of the arrival of a new American administration, Israel, a small, vulnerable Middle Eastern state deeply reliant on its American alliance, would find itself responsible for starting an American war (associated with a Vice President of unparalleled unpopularity) and for a global oil shock of staggering proportions, if not a global great depression. It would also be the proximate cause for a regional "fireball." (Oil-poor Israel would undoubtedly also be economically wounded by its own strike.)
In addition, the latest American National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concluded that the Iranians stopped weaponizing parts of their nuclear program back in 2003, and American intelligence reputedly doubts recent Israeli warnings that Iran is on the verge of a bomb. Of course, Israel itself has an estimated — though unannounced — nuclear force of about 200 such weapons.
Simply put, it is next to inconceivable that the present riven Israeli government would be politically capable of launching such an attack on Iran on its own, or even in combination with only a faction, no matter how important, in the U.S. government. And such a point is more or less taken for granted by many Israelis (and Iranians). Without a full-scale "green light" from the Bush administration, launching such an attack could be tantamount to long-term political suicide.
Only in conjunction with an American attack would an Israeli attack (rash to the point of madness even then) be likely. So let’s turn to the Bush administration and consider what might be called the Hersh scenario.
Will the Bush administration Attack Iran If Obama Is Elected?
The first problem is a simple one. Oil, which was at $146 a barrel last week, dropped to $136 (in part because of a statement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissing "the possibility that war with the United States and Israel was imminent"), and, on Wednesday rose a dollar to $137 in reaction to Iranian missile tests. But, whatever its immediate zigs and zags, the overall pattern of the price of oil seems clear enough. Some suggest that, by the time of any Obama victory, a barrel of crude oil will be at $170. The chairman of the giant Russian oil monopoly Gazprom recently predicted that it would hit $250 within 18 months — and that’s without an attack on Iran.
For those eager to launch a reasonably no-pain campaign against Iran, the moment is already long gone. Every leap in the price of oil only emphasizes the pain to come. In turn, that means, with every passing day, it’s madder — and harder — to launch such an attack. There is already significant opposition within the administration; the American people, feeling pain, are unprepared for and, as polls indicate, massively unwilling to sanction such an attack. There can be no question that the Bush legacy, such as it is, would be secured in infamy forever and a day.
Now, consider recent administration actions on North Korea. Facing a "reality" that first-term Bush officials would have abjured, the President and his advisors not only negotiated with that nuclearized Axis of Evil nation, but are now removing it from the Trading with the Enemy Act list and the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. No matter what steps Kim Jong Il’s regime has taken, including blowing up the cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor, this is nothing short of a stunning reversal for this administration. An angry John Bolton, standing in for the Cheney faction, compared what happened to a "police truce with the Mafia." And Vice President Cheney’s anger over the decision — and the policy — was visible and widely reported.
It’s possible, of course, that Cheney and associates are simply holding their fire for what they care most about, but here’s another question that needs to be considered: Does George W. Bush actually support his imperial Vice President in the manner he once did? There’s no way to know, but Bush has always been a more important figure in the administration than many critics like to imagine. The North Korean decision indicates that Cheney may not have a free hand from the President on Iran policy either.
The Adults in the Room
And what about the opposition? I’m not talking about those of us out here who would oppose such a strike. I mean within the world of Bush’s Washington. Forget the Democrats. They hardly count and, as Hersh has pointed out, their leadership already signed off on that $400 million covert destabilization campaign.
I mean the adults in the room, who have been in short supply indeed these last years in the Bush administration, specifically Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. (Condoleezza Rice evidently falls into this camp as well, although she’s proven herself something of a President-enabling nonentity over the years.)
With former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gates tellingly co-chaired a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations back in 2004 which called for negotiations with Iran. He arrived at the Pentagon early in 2007 as an envoy from the world of George H.W. Bush and as a man on a mission. He was there to staunch the madness and begin the clean up in the imperial Augean stables.
In his Congressional confirmation hearings, he was absolutely clear: any attack on Iran would be a "very last resort." Sometimes, in the bureaucratic world of Washington, a single "very" can tell you what you need to know. Until then, administration officials had been referring to an attack on Iran simply as a "last resort." He also offered a bloodcurdling scenario for what the aftermath of such an American attack might be like:
"It’s always awkward to talk about hypotheticals in this case. But I think that while Iran cannot attack us directly militarily, I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror both in the — well, in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country is very real… Their ability to get Hezbollah to further destabilize Lebanon I think is very real. So I think that while their ability to retaliate against us in a conventional military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of the things, and perhaps more, that I just described."
And perhaps more… That puts it in a nutshell.
Hersh, in his most recent piece on the administration’s covert program in Iran, reports the following:
"A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record lunch meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates met with the Democratic caucus in the Senate. (Such meetings are held regularly.) Gates warned of the consequences if the Bush Administration staged a preemptive strike on Iran, saying, as the senator recalled, ‘We’ll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America.’ Gates’s comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch."
In other words, back in 2007, early and late, our new secretary of defense managed to sound remarkably like one of those Iranian officials issuing warnings. Gates, who has a long history as a skilled Washington in-fighter, has once again proven that skill. So far, he seems to have outmaneuvered the Cheney faction.
The March "resignation" of CENTCOM commander Admiral William J. Fallon, outspokenly against an administration strike on Iran, sent both a shiver of fear through war critics and a new set of attack scenarios coursing through the political Internet, as well as into the world of the mainstream media. As reporter Jim Lobe points out at his invaluable Lobelog blog, however, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Gates’s man in the Pentagon, has proven nothing short of adamant when it comes to the inadvisabilty of attacking Iran.
His recent public statements have actually been stronger than Fallon’s (and the position he fills is obviously more crucial than CENTCOM commander). Lobe comments that, at a July 2nd press conference at the Pentagon, Mullen "repeatedly made clear that he opposes an attack on Iran — whether by Israel or his own forces — and, moreover, favors dialogue with Tehran, without the normal White House nuclear preconditions."
Mullen, being an adult, has noticed the obvious. As columnist Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Constitution put the matter recently: "A U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would create trouble that we aren’t equipped to handle easily, not with ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drove that point home in a press conference last week at the Pentagon."
The Weight of Reality
Here’s the point: Yes, there is a powerful faction in this administration, headed by the Vice President, which has, it seems, saved its last rounds of ammunition for a strike against Iran. The question, of course, is: Are they still capable of creating "their own reality" and imposing it, however briefly, on the planet? Every tick upwards in the price of oil says no. Every day that passes makes an attack on Iran harder to pull off.
On this subject, panic may be everywhere in the world of the political Internet, and even in the mainstream, but it’s important not to make the mistake of overestimating these political actors or underestimating the forces arrayed against them. It’s a reasonable proposition today — as it wasn’t perhaps a year ago — that, whatever their desires, they will not, in the end, be able to launch an attack on Iran; that, even where there’s a will, there may not be a way.
They would have to act, after all, against the unfettered opposition of the American people; against leading military commanders who, even if obliged to follow a direct order from the President, have other ways to make their wills known; against key figures in the administration; and, above all, against reality which bears down on them with a weight that is already staggering — and still growing.
And yet, of course, for the maddest gamblers and dystopian dreamers in our history, never say never.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn’t covered, it is an alternative history of the mad Bush years. A brief video in which Engelhardt discusses American mega-bases in Iraq can be viewed by clicking here.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt